South Korea: An emulation economy success story
Emulation: 1. (obsolete) ambitious or envious rivalry / 2. ambition or endeavor to equal or excel others.
Every country has its own set of fairy tales that, repeated generation after generation for their originality and literary significance, help to preserve and pass on important cultural, moral and historical values. Aesop’s fairy tales and Talmud stories have been conserved and are still read today to kids all over the world to hand down in simple entertaining ways important moral lessons. Greek and Roman comedies and tragedies were cathartic rituals and in some case propaganda tools, where whole cities such as Athens in 5th century BC and Rome later could inspire discussions and elaborate on important current issues about the state of politics, diplomacy and society. Still today similarly movies have the same force and role of inspiring and interpreting events of our world.
Of course different countries have different fairy tales and main characters, typical and peculiar to their realities. In Korea there is a popular fairy tale entitled “Golden ax, silver ax”. The protagonists are one young carpenter, who makes a great fortune through his sincerity, and a greedy neighbor, who, after hearing of the carpenter, tries to obtain similarly a golden and silver ax to no avail. After losing his steel ax, the sincerity of the carpenter is tested by a mountain spirit, who asks if the lost ax was golden or silver. By answering sincerely, the carpenter receives all three axes. The villain differently shows his greed. This kind of fairy tales are common in Korea traditional heritage and the greedy envious neighbor is a constant character.
Journalists, writers and experts based in the country have oftentimes referred to Korea as the economy of envy or emulation,¹ because one of the pillar of her success can be traced back to the extreme competitive edge and to the intense ambition or endeavor of Koreans to equal or excel their peers. On a negative note emulation contributes to counterfeiting, plagiarism and conformism, deemphasizing critical reasoning, out of the box thinking and creative problem solving. On a positive side this refusal to accept the status quo and the willingness to do whatever it takes to improve current and/or adverse situations are really the mindsets and behaviors that have prompted Korean economic growth.
This quest for excellence, which can partly explain Korean love for luxury products, early adoption of the newest products and best technological gadgets and even over-reliance on plastic surgery, is compensated by the impatience in consuming those products as fastest as possible “빨리 빨리”, which is noticeable for instance from rocket speed e-commerce deliveries, instant food consumption, short life cycle of smartphones, very limited urban conservation.
There are growing concerns that Korea’s education system encourages emulation rather than innovation. Also in China, Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce company Alibaba, has voiced similar concerns for his country:
“If we are not innovative…if we are not creative enough it will be very difficult to survive in this century”.²
In times where technological changes are accelerating at light speed, “foundational skills” like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and empathy will be more relevant and important, because “when machines can put humans to shame in performing routine job-specific tasks, it makes sense to think about the skills that computers find harder to learn”.³
¹ Andrew Salmon interview for the AsiaSociety.
“For one, Korea faces an enormous social problem: Their society has become overly competitive. I think this stems from traditional village culture with its “economics of envy” — i.e., “if Kim has something new, Park wants it too” — magnified a thousand-fold by surging economic growth and urbanization, and magnified further by government and corporate messaging urging people onward, ever onward. Now people have not only bought into it, they are trapped in it. For example many mums hate the education stresses, but still feel compelled to shove their children headfirst into the sausage grinder, as they have to “keep up with the Kims.”